Part 2 of 3 – Jesus and Women

womanatwell

“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4.27).

Last week we looked at Jesus and the “Us vs. Them” paradigm of the Jews and the Samaritans.  This week, I’d like to take a brief moment to notice the breathtaking way in which Jesus related to women, especially within a first century Palestinian patriarchal culture.

The disciples return and find Jesus speaking with a woman.  John tells us that the disciples were astonished at this.  The question I’d like you to ponder is why were they surprised?

Treatment of Women in the first century.

Last month in the eSight entitled Jesus Stops a Lynching, I made mention of the double standard that existed within the Torah concerning adultery.  Adultery was not defined as a male engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, but as a married woman engaging in such.  In other words, if a married man had an affair with an unmarried woman it was not considered to be adultery because the woman did not belong to another man.  A man could only be committing adultery if the woman was married to another man.  The adultery laws of the Torah were not concerned with marital fidelity per se, as much as they were protecting the property rights of husbands to whom their wives belonged. Remember, women in this culture were looked upon as being the property of their husbands.  In John 8 we have a married woman about to be punitively punished for her unfaithfulness to her husband, and Jesus breathtakingly comes to her defense, disarms the crowd, siding with the woman about to be turned into a scapegoat, advocating for this woman against the religious male leadership.

The second example I’d like us to consider is the question about divorce put to Jesus in Matthew 5.  Remember, divorce laws in Jesus’ day were another example of male-dominance law.  Women could not divorce their husbands.  A woman was her husband’s property.  But, a man could divorce his wife.  What is remarkable is that under the Torah, a husband could divorce his wife for something as simple as burning his dinner, becoming less sexually attractive as she aged than the new younger options, or literally any reason for which the husband was no longer pleased with her.  This is how it was under Moses.  Jesus comes to women’s defense stating that, in the Kingdom, there is no reason for treating a woman unjustly.  You may be able to justify sending her away under Moses, but not so within the Kingdom that Jesus was coming to establish.  Let me say a word about Moses.  Moses was an improvement from where the Hebrews were in their unjust treatment of women (See Deuteronomy 24).  But, that was only as far as that culture could walk, at that time.  It wasn’t far enough. Jesus takes protecting women from injustice within marriages within a patriarchal culture to a whole new level by stating that the only reason a woman could be divorced was if she herself was martially unfaithful.  This was to protect men from being taken advantage of too, but notice that Jesus’ strict words about divorce arise from the backdrop of abuse of women in a marital context within a strictly patriarchal culture.  There was no egalitarian treatment of women within marriages during His day.

We could discuss the woman who was bent over that Jesus called forward into the males-only section of the synagogue to be healed on the Sabbath, or the woman, healed and then affirmed by Jesus, who violated the Torah and touches Jesus even though she has an issue of blood; but, what I want you to notice about all of the examples is the gender pyramid that existed in Jesus’ day and Jesus’ engagement with it.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the economic pyramid structure that Jesus came to overthrow (see Luke 6.20-24).  I’d like you to consider the gender pyramid structures that existed in Jesus’s day as well.  Jesus had come to turn social pyramids upside down.  Those at the top of pyramids, in the places of privilege, would find themselves removed from these privileged positions.  While those at the bottom of these pyramid structures, who were slaving away to benefit those at the top of the pyramid, would find themselves liberated.  When it came to the gender pyramid in Jesus’ day, men were at the top and women were at the bottom.  In the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish, all of this was to be turned on its head, “upside down” as they said in Acts 17.6, where women and men would now be valued and treated equally.

Consider the story of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, who is slaving away at the bottom of the pyramid domestically that day, notices that she hasn’t seen Mary in quite a bit.  Wondering why Mary has left her to do all the “slaving” alone, she walks into the room to find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  What makes this appalling for Martha is that this was a place reserved for men only.  Anyone could be in the room listening to Jesus, but women were typically at the back; then there were the men, and then, if you were a man who was aspiring to become a Rabbi, there was a special spot reserved for you.  Your place, as an aspiring Rabbi, was at the feet of the Rabbi who would be teaching that day.  Remember, being a Rabbi was a men’s only club and, therefore, the “feet of Jesus” was a place that would have been reserved only for men.  And yet, Martha finds Mary, abandoning her domestic place at the bottom of this social pyramid, and seated at the top, right there with Jesus.  What Martha is telling Jesus is that He should put Mary back in her place.  Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”  In Jesus’ Kingdom, women would no longer be relegated to a lower place than men.  Mary had chosen what was best, and she would not be denied based on her gender.

The parallels between the Genesis narrative of the fall and John’s narrative of the Resurrection also cannot be missed.  Both narratives take place in a garden.  Both narratives involve a woman.  But, where the Genesis narrative places the woman as the first to be deceived, the Resurrection narrative places the woman as the first to be enlightened.  She is then sent as an Apostle to the Apostles. She is the first person to proclaim the risen Lord; she is the first to proclaim that a whole new world has begun.  As followers of Jesus, we do not live in the narrative of an old fallen creation where the woman was the first to be deceived by the serpent.  Our story is the narrative of the Resurrection where the woman was the first to believe in the risen Lord.  The Female Narrative within the Hebrew culture has been redeemed through the Resurrection. Woman is now first into the new world!  Surely, the last (bottom of the pyramid) has become the first and the first (top of the pyramid) has become the last.

Some will try and use Paul to overthrow the Jesus story.  But, this is a misunderstanding of the subversive nature of Paul’s use of the word “submit.”  Paul told Jesus-following slaves to “submit” to their unbelieving masters, not because he believed in slavery, but as a subversive way to win over their masters so that they could become Jesus followers too, so that, once converted, the relationship between slave and master would be undone.  Paul uses this same word, “submit”, in relation to the kingdoms of this world as a subversive way to overthrow those same kingdoms, winning over the nations and the kings of the Earth so they would bow down as well to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  And lastly, Paul speaks of women believers “submitting” to their unbelieving husbands (and vice versa) as the subversive way of winning unbelieving spouses to becoming followers of Jesus as well, where hierarchical authority structures even within marriage would be abolished for the egalitarianism of the Kingdom.

Now, let’s return to Jesus.  Jesus is not afraid to refer to the “maternal” nature of God, even within his own patriarchal culture. Yes, Jesus did speak of God as Father the majority of the time, speaking within His own male dominant culture, but at appropriately subversive and controversial times He also took care to speak about our Mother God as well. (Matthew 23.37; Luke 13.34)

There are undeniably two streams within the scriptures that Jesus followers hold in high regard.  While there is a clear patriarchal stream, there is another, very clear, egalitarian stream as well. (Galatians 3.28)  Jesus followers must discern whether Jesus is moving us away from the egalitarian stream to the patriarchal stream, or whether Jesus is moving us away from the patriarchal stream to the egalitarian one.  Which direction is the Jesus story moving us in?

Again, we can’t allow other sections of scripture to embolden us to ignore Jesus’ treatment of women.  Jesus simply stepped over the gender boundaries of his own day, ignoring them. For those who claim to be following this Jesus, the question we have to ask is are we following Him too?  This is not becoming more like the world.  It’s simply that the world has been listening, in this regard, to Jesus’ spirit, more than the church has.  If this is true, it would not be the first time.  And I’m sure, before the time of all things being restored, it won’t be the last.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  Why? Because Jesus refused to place women beneath Him.  Instead, Jesus believed God viewed, as well as treated, women with egalitarianism and Jesus was going to do so as well.  After all, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. (John 14.7-10, cf. John 5.19)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to spend some quiet time with Jesus contemplating what a world would truly look like in which women were treated the same as men.  Where people are evaluated on the value God places on them.  Where voices are heard based on content, not gender.  And where service is based on giftedness rather than gender.  Remember, we are called to put on display what the world changed by Jesus looks like and to give witness to the Resurrection that this new world has begun.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how you can put this new world on display in your own life, within your own sphere of influence.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Christ, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys,

See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 1 of 3 – Jesus and the Samaritans

Jacob's_Well_1839

 

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  (John 4.9)

This week I want to begin a three part contemplation of the scene in John’s gospel that took place at “Jacob’s well.”  There are three ways we can approach this story.  The first thing to note is the cultural context and meaning within which Jesus was associating with the Samaritan. The second thing to note is that Jesus was speaking, not just to a Samaritan, but to a Samaritan woman.  The third thing is how Jesus relates to someone, regardless of who they are, someone who might have a sketchy past by which they define themselves and feel ashamed.  We’ll look at each of these over the next few weeks, but for now, let’s begin our contemplation with the first way to approach this story.

Who were the Samaritans in the First Century?

Original Split

The history of the Jews and Samaritans is a complex one, much like a divorced couple giving two different stories.  But one thing is for sure: their history is rooted in schism.  Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh (as well as the tribe of Levi).  After the death of Solomon, the Kingdom split into two parts: the Northern tribes of Israel whose capital was Samaria, and the Southern tribe of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.

Return From Exile

The schism continues within the narrative of the Jews returning to their land and being given permission to rebuild their temple.  When the Samaritans (remnants of the Northern Tribes after the dispersion of the Assyrians) heard that the temple was being rebuilt, they, as kinsmen, wanted to help.  “They approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us’” (Ezra 4.2-3). Zerubbabel, discerning that the Samaritans’ worship of Jehovah had, over time, become a syncretistic religion, worshiping Jehovah as well as other gods of the surrounding nations, considered these descendants of the Northern Tribes no longer “Israelites” and thus not “fit” for helping in rebuilding the temple.

Maccabean Revolt

The last straw was during the Maccabean Revolt, when under Antiochus Epiphanes a holocaust of the Hebrew people was attempted in an effort to Hellenize his entire kingdom.  During this time the Samaritans, desiring to be spared, repudiated all connections of kinship with the Jewish people.  They were spared and this, above all, was the source of hatred by the Jewish people in the days of Jesus.  Jesus over and over refers to this history within His ministry (see Luke 4).  Jesus not only wanted to teach the Jews to love their historical enemies the Seleucids (Sidon/Syria), He wanted the Jews to learn to forgive and embrace their Samaritan brothers and sisters as well.

Due to their rejection during the time of the temple’s reconstruction in Jerusalem, the Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerizim.

Mount Gerizim was the original place of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and possessed a rich tradition of worship within the history of the Hebrew people.

“When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11.29)

The Samaritans, like the Jews, in the time of Jesus believed in One God, Yahweh, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets.  They taught the Torah as it was given by God to Moses.  Yet they worshiped on Mount Gerizim which they believed was the true sanctuary chosen by Israel’s God, rather than the sanctuary at Jerusalem which was associated with Judah’s God.  It is true that in Jesus’ day, the Samaritan religious belief systems had become a hybrid of the worship of Yahweh combined with beliefs associated with the worship of other Gods.

In the time of Jesus, both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another.  Josephus also reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century.

What we have to recognize and be confronted by is that Jesus ignores all of this.  He sees Samaritans as children of God just like Himself and treats them accordingly.  This is why the Samaritan woman was so shocked:

“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”  (John 4.9)

Jesus repeatedly confronted the tensions between the Jews and Samaritans.  He told the story of a good Samaritan, whose actions were so at variance with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus’ story describes a Samaritan leper who is the only one of ten lepers (the other nine being Jews) to say “Thank you” and worship Jesus.  He rebukes James and John for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritans and destroy them.  Jesus did not relate to Samaritans according the script He had been handed by His Jewish culture. He rejected the rules He had been handed on how to play the game.

Notice, the woman reveals how the Samaritans still claim to be descendants of Abraham, still followers of Moses.

“‘Are you greater than OUR ancestor Jacob, who gave US the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’”  (John 4.12, emphasis added)

To continue the dialogue.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [remember the Hebrew people originally worshiped on Mt. Gerizim before the temple was built in Jerusalem], but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know [Both the Jews and Samaritans had been influenced by Hellenization by this time, so this was not a jab at the “hybrid” nature of the Samaritan worship. The Jews too contained some level of “hybrid” from Greek influence.  Rather the Samaritans believed the Messiah would come from the lineage of one of the Northern Tribes of which they believed they were descended]; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews [the Messiah was to come through the lineage of Judah and thus the Jews, yet be for all people]. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4.20-24, emphasis added)

Let’s unpack this a bit.

First, Jesus says the hour “is coming.”  By is now here he is saying that shallow outward signs rooted in space-time debates such as which mountain they worship on would not distinguish true worshipers. True worshipers would, through Jesus, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

Let’s look at what Jesus meant by Spirit first.  Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ use of “Spirit” here in John 4 is seen in 2 Corinthians 3 where he distinguishes between the Spirit of the Law with the Letter of the Law.  The original Hebrew people formed a community, centered in the teachings of Moses, to which certain promises had been made.  One did not earn a position within that community by following all the teachings of Moses.  One simply had to demonstrate a desire to join the community by endeavoring to follow its teachings.  Jesus comes to create a new human community, rooted in the Jewish community, but now centered around His own teachings.  Today one does not earn a place in Jesus’ new human community by following His teachings, but we do demonstrate that we desire to be a part of this community, and a part of this new world Jesus is creating, by endeavoring to follow the teachings of this Jesus in whom this new world is centered.  Jesus’ teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount.  And although they are of the same “Spirit” of the “Law and Prophets,” Jesus’ ethical teachings are deeper, broader, and even more demanding at times, than Moses’ ethical teachings ever were.  Jesus’ teachings are a fuller revelation.  At times, following the Spirit of the Law in Jesus will be a deeper expression of the Letter found in Moses (see Matthew 5:21-28). Sometimes following the Spirit will be a direct contradiction to the Letter found in Moses. (See Matthew 5.38-43, as well as the woman of Luke 8, the woman of John 8, and the accusation of the early Jesus followers as being “lawless” according to the book of James.)  Which leads me to the next identifier, Truth.

John too contrasts the law that came through Moses with the Truth that came through Jesus.  What are we to make of this? It is true that both Jesus and Moses belong to the same moral trajectory.  Yet God through Moses was leading them as far as they could possibly be led in that time.  The Torah of Moses still included nationalism, polygamy, slavery, lex talionis (eye for an eye), the way of sacrifice (Matthew 9.13; 12.7), and violence against one’s enemies.  Jesus moves us further toward an understanding of God and the truth about God that eliminates all of these.  John states that you can have the Torah, yet still not truly see God until you meet Jesus (John 1.17-18).

There are some things between Moses and Jesus that are the same.  Yet there are some things within their teachings that are radically different. (In much in the same way I am teaching my 6 year old not to talk to strangers while I am teaching my 17 year old how to talk to strangers effectively.  Am I the same parent?  Yes.  Are these contradictory rules?  Yes.  Are my children in different places in their development and thus need different rules at different stages?  Yes.)

What Jesus is telling this woman is that He has come to initiate a new human community which would no longer be distinguished by external arguments over the Torah or the teachings of Moses (Do we worship on this mountain or that one?), but rather that this community would be centered around Himself, His teachings, which are from the same Spirit of the Torah, but offer a much Truer revelation of God, how God sees ourselves and how we are to see everyone else around us.

The woman finishes with:

“‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to US.’  “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’” (John 4.25-26, emphasis added)

Jesus said the time is Now!  This new community would no longer be defined by arguments over how to observe the Torah.  This new humanity would be centered around a new way of seeing God, ourselves, and others who inspire us to live according to the ethical teachings of Jesus found in His Sermon on the Mount.

Time is coming and Now is!

Christians, Jews, Muslims and Samaritans have all fought over this well, historically dug by Jacob.  Each has taught that it is wrong to associate with the opposite group. They have continued in the worship, not of the God of Jesus, but of the God of “us vs. them.”

Today, we must squarely face this first revelation of Jesus talking to this Samaritan at Jacob’s well to confront us.  Today we have Christians with different theologies who all claim to follow the same Jesus. We are told many times that it is wrong and even dangerous to associate with the “them” instead of just our “us.” A list of doctrinal truths and lifestyle behaviors has become the test of which ones are truly following God and who are not.  Today Jesus would say to this: “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem, but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we have multiple world religions.  Critics ask, “If all religions teach peace than why can’t they get along?”  They each teach, to varying degrees, that it is wrong or dangerous to associate with those who are of a different creed.  A creed has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say again, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today, we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by nationality. Consider the West’s attitude toward the Taliban: anyone who disagrees with this view is “sympathizing with the enemy” and probably a terrorist. Such disagreement must be met with violence. Anything less is unpatriotic or treasonable.  Tribal loyalty has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by economics.  Whether it is the refugee who appears at our border, or the foreign worker who threatens our jobs, we respond with territorialism rather than hospitality, self-interest instead of sharing.  Fidelity to capitalism has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world by race. It is appalling that any group bearing the name of Jesus would still practice segregation. We all drink from the same “Cup.” But some denominations still say that it is best for everyone not to integrate. In some areas, the complexion of one’s congregation is still the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice the way of dividing the world between Jews and Samaritan in matters of gender. I know of religious communities that teach that women should not be permitted to be in a position to teach men.  They say it’s morally wrong to place women in an egalitarian position with men.  One’s position on gender in religious leadership has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

And lastly, we see this way of dividing the world between the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority.  Protestors carry signs that proclaim “God Hates Fags!”  “Love the sinner Hate the Sin!”  “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”  It is argued that “they” must be opposed or “they” will corrupt “our” children. One’s position on gay marriage has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

In all the ways that we divide each other, ways that cause us to see others as “the enemy,” ways that echo the First Century’s divisions of Jews and Samaritans, we have forgotten the first teaching of Jesus: We are all children of the same divine parents.  On the inside, we are all the same.  Jesus died and was resurrected to save us all from the ways of Cains against Abels.  These divisions will one day cease.  One day we will all, once again, sit at the same table.  It’s this table practice that Jesus put on display in His ministry, and it was this table practice that got Him killed.  I know we are addicted to our exclusive clubs, but Jesus is offering us the privilege, in our present age, of putting on display what the beautifully restored inclusive age to come will look like. We are called upon to show how the world will look when transformed and restored by Jesus.

If Jesus were alive today, He would tell the story of the good Catholic (if He were among protestants, or the good Protestant if he were among Catholics, or maybe the good “both” if he were among Eastern Orthodox). He would tell the story of the good Muslim, the good Hindu, or the good Buddhist.  He would tell the story of the good terrorist, the good immigrant, the good “welfare recipient”.  He would tell the story of the good ordained woman priest or female preacher, the good gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

I know what your thinking.  You’re thinking “But, but, but, but . . .” Whatever is wrong with the “other” group you are having a problem with, remember, the Jews had persuasive arguments, rooted in the Torah, against the Samaritans as well, and yet Jesus ignored all of that and extended His invitation to them as well.

Whomever our “them” is, whomever we have labeled as “the enemy,” we are going to have to confront Jesus going into Samaria, stopping by the well to talk with this Samaritan, and inviting her to embrace Him as her Messiah. He broke every “us and them” rule that existed that day, and the question we followers have to ask ourselves is, do we?

Jesus is seeking to create a new humanity, centered in Himself, comprised of people of all our present ways of dividing ourselves. Are we helping Him, or are we standing in His way?  It is Jesus and His new world rooted in His Sermon on the Mount by which this new humanity will be defined.  Nothing else, and nothing less.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we choose to dived ourselves by these periphery standards to give us a sense of assurance in the midst of the fact that we are all, to a large degree, hiding from the fact that we find Jesus ethical teachings too radical to follow.  We are not following the Sermon on the Mount, so we have to come up with lesser things to distinguish others as different than ourselves by.  The very first teaching of Jesus is that we are to stop this way of dividing ourselves. We are all in a process.  And as we are in this process, we must remember that we are all children of the same God and that Jesus is seeking to restore and reconcile us all to Himself and to each other.  It was Jesus’ radical inclusivity that got Him killed.  We must be careful or we may one day see that the hammer and the nails are once again being raised, and in hands that belong to us.

HeartGroup Application

1.  This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus. Ask Him to show you whom your own “Samaritan” is that you feel should be excluded, shunned or simply not associated with.

2. Ask Him to show you what these people look like through His eyes rather than your own.

3. Journal what He shows you and share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Next week we’ll look at the shocker: This wasn’t just a Samaritan, but it was a “woman” within the context of First Century, Palestinian, Jewish, patriarchal standards.

And the week after that we’ll look at Jesus’ relation to her, not as a Samaritan, nor as a woman, but as simply a human being with a past she felt ashamed of.

Stay with me over the next few weeks.

It’s a beautiful picture of God, a beautiful picture of how God sees each of us, and a beautiful picture of how we too are to see each other.  The picture will emerge, but we first have to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys,

I’ll see you next week.

 

 

The Scapegoating/Betraying of Jesus at Bethesda

Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

 

 

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’” (John 5.1–8)

 

This week, I’d like to revisit the story of John 5. Even if you are familiar with this story, I want to encourage you to give it a fresh look and see if you don’t see what I’m seeing here.

Let’s dive right in.

At first, the story appears to recount another run-of-the-mill healing by Jesus on yet another Sabbath day. But there is something else going on that a surface reading won’t catch.

Follow the story carefully.

“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ But he replied, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Pick up your mat and walk.”’ So they asked him, ‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’ The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.” (John 5.9–13)

It should be remembered that in Jesus’ day, those who were crippled, blind, or lame were not looked upon with compassion or viewed simply as less fortunate than others. This was a culture built on the assumptions of Deuteronomy 28, which states clearly that if you obey, God will bless you, and if you disobey, God will curse you. So if you are crippled, if you are blind, if you are a paralytic, you must be a sinner! What else could explain your current condition?

It should also be remembered that in Jesus’ culture, “sinner” was a very different term than it is today. Today, Christians are taught that we’re all sinners. “All have sinned,” Paul says. But before Paul and the early Christian movement developed the view that everyone is a sinner, this was not the case. The Jews belonged to a community to which certain promises had been made. And although you did not follow Moses’ teachings in order to earn a place in that community, you did follow those teachings, as well as the rules of the community, in order to put on display your decision to be a part of that community.  The term “sinner” was a label used for Jews who, despite belonging by birth to the covenant community, lived contrary to the Torah and rejected their place in that community. In short, the term “sinner” was not applied universally.

If you were a paralytic, in addition to suffering from your condition, you bore the stigma of being a sinner, for why else would God be punishing you? Being a paralytic (or anyone with a disability) in the time of Jesus carried with it the stigma of moral inferiority, the stigma of being a “sinner” and all that included for a Jew.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic in Matthew 9 is that his sins are forgiven. Jesus sought first to relieve the guilt/stigma that accompanied being defined as a “sinner” in contrast to everyone else.

In John 5, Jesus heals the man. He sets him free! This freedom involves more than just the ability to walk. It is simultaneously a liberation from the “sinner” label. And what happens next? The man bumps into some fellow Jews who question him regarding why he is carrying his “burden” on the Sabbath day. Do you see what’s happening? He had just become free of the “sinner” label, and his new status is immediately threatened! He is at risk of being classified once again as a “sinner,” and he panics. He throws Jesus under the bus, saying, “The man who healed me . . . it’s His fault!” But the man cannot give his accusers a name, so the matter is dropped.

This next part is where things get interesting.

“Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning [hamartia] or something worse may happen to you.’” (John 5.14)

What the Greek actually says here is, “Behold you have been made healthy! Be guilty of wrongdoing no more or you will become something worse than a paralytic!

I want to remind you of John’s “Sin no more,” which we covered in our study on John’s use of hamartia in the eSight/podcast just a couple weeks ago. You can find it here if you need to refresh your memory: https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014/

John uses hamartia differently than some of the other New Testament authors. He uses the term to refer not simply to the behavior associated with sin, but also to the guilt that comes from defining yourself as a sinner.

This man in John 5 had been a paralytic for 38 years. According to the Intervarsity Press New Testament Background Commentary, “The man had been sick there longer than many people in antiquity lived.” This means that although the man was not a paralytic from birth, he might as well have been. He had become a paralytic sometime during infancy—so there is no way this man’s own sin caused him to be a paralytic. Jesus isn’t saying, “Listen, last time you sinned, this is what happened. Now go and sin no more, or next time, something worse might happen to you.” It wasn’t the man’s personal behavior that brought about his disability. He was an infant, for crying out loud. What Jesus is doing for this paralytic is exactly what He did for the paralytic in Matthew 9. He is seeking to set him free from the moral stigma to which paralytics were subjected.

“Go and be guilty of wrong no more.” (John 5.14; Mounce’s Greek Dictionary)

Jesus is setting him free, asserting that he no longer has to define himself as a “sinner”! You don’t have to define yourself according to the way others have looked at you, Jesus is saying. But if you don’t stop defining yourself this way, if you don’t stop allowing others to determine how you see yourself, your fate will be worse than that of simply being a paralytic. What is that fate? What is that something worse? It’s in the very next verse.

“The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5.15)

Why would this man betray Jesus—the man who had just healed him—to the very people who had accused him of breaking the Sabbath?

The answer has to do with the nature of scapegoating. When a person is scapegoated the way this man was—both for being a paralytic and, afterward, for presumably breaking the Sabbath—that person becomes desperate. There are two ways enemies become friends. The first is to identify a mutual/common enemy (see Luke 23.12). The second is to cultivate forgiveness and reconciliation. The first is very similar to how scapegoats seek to escape being attacked by the crowd. When someone is being picked on, they will instinctively endeavor to deflect the negative attention onto someone weaker than themselves. The result is that now, rather than being picked on, they have gained their oppressors’ acceptance by joining them in picking on someone else.

This is the “something worse” about which Jesus was warning the paralytic. He could be free from the “sinner” stigma in two ways. He could embrace the new identity Jesus was giving him and no longer define himself the way his religious community had. Jesus would become that which defined this man and gave him a sense of worth. Alternatively, he could convince his community to scapegoat someone else—and join his community in the practice of scapegoating.  And who would this man choose to scapegoat? Who would he choose to throw under the bus? Who would he encourage his own oppressors to view as the real “sinner”?

He does exactly the opposite of the blind man in John 9, whom Jesus healed and whose story John is contrasting with this man’s. The man in John 5 chose the worse path. In an effort to be accepted by the crowd, he chose to betray, or scapegoat, the very Jesus who had just healed him.

“So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5.16–18)

I want to draw attention to one more issue before we close this week. In response to the man’s attempt to divert the accusers’ scapegoating mechanism onto Jesus himself, Jesus does not refute the accusation, but embraces it. If he deflected the accusation, he would run the risk of turning the accusers’ attention back on the paralytic man. Jesus accepts the label of Sabbath breaker to save the man who had just betrayed him. He doesn’t deny that he broke the Sabbath. He doesn’t claim that “healing” is not a violation of Sabbath observance. On the contrary, Jesus quotes the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20, in effect confessing that He was “working.”

In Jesus’ confession “I too am working,” the Greek word translated as “working” is ergazomai. It is the same word used in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 20.9: “Six days you labor [ergazomai] and do all your work.” Jesus is virtually saying, “Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, just as the commandment says not to.”

Just so you can get the truest sense of what Jesus is doing here, take a look at the way ergazomai is used in other New Testament passages.

Matthew 21.28: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work [ergazomai] in the vineyard today.’”

Matthew 25.16: “The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded [ergazomai] with them, and made five more talents.”

John 6.27: “Do not work [ergazomai] for the food that perishes . . .”

Acts 18.3: “And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked [ergazomai] together—by trade they were tentmakers.”

1Corinthians 9.6: “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living [ergazomai]?”

2Thessalonians 3.8: “And we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked [ergazomai] night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”

Revelation 18.17: “For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade [ergazomai] is on the sea, stood far off.”

And not only does Jesus embrace the role of scapegoat here, He actually drags God into it with Him.

“My Father is always at his work [ergazomai] to this very day, and I too am working [ergazomai].”

In John 5, God in Christ becomes the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He, the innocent, embraces the label of “sinner,” of “Sabbath breaker.” Why?

The answer is found in the story of the unjust death and resurrection of God in Jesus. The resurrection proves that God is not to be found within the scapegoaters (whether political, economic, or religious). God is to found in the one hanging shamefully on the tree at the hands of those who put him there. This way of finding unity among ourselves by finding a common enemy and then justifying it by labeling them “sinners,” this way of organizing human societies around a common “evil,” this way of “making peace” among ourselves is capable of killing even God Himself.

We do it today. We do it economically with immigrants and foreigners. We do it politically with the Taliban. We do it religiously with the LGBTQ community. When are we going to stop? What we are doing led in the past to the unjust execution of God. We don’t see what we are doing. It is time for us to wake up.

When will we learn to abandon our preoccupation with “us” and “them”?

We are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus died for all of us. We are all God’s favorites. When will we learn that we don’t need to throw others under the bus to secure our place in this world?

 

HeartGroup Application

What does it mean to you that Jesus embraced the label of “Sabbath breaker” within a community that defined itself according to those who kept the Sabbath and those who didn’t?

In John’s contrasting story in John 9, the Pharisees say, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (9.16). When I was at the impressionable age of fourteen, I joined “God” in being “against” Sabbath breakers too. I was this paralytic, looking for the acceptance of God. And instead of receiving “acceptance” as a free gift, I found it in identifying a “common enemy.” God forgive me, not just for my gross ignorance of what God is like, but for my “baptizing” the way of the “accuser” rather than following the radically inclusive way of Jesus.

1. Sit with Jesus this week on the subject of scapegoating and defining others by their level of Torah observance. Jesus inaugurated a new community, centered on Himself. If there is any evaluation to be made, it is of one’s heart orientation toward Jesus. But what saves us from now  scapegoating others because we feel they lack a heart orientation toward Jesus? The answer is twofold: (1) only God really knows the heart, and (2) even if another person’s heart is not oriented toward Jesus, Jesus Himself commands us to love as indiscriminately as the sun shines and the rain falls (Matthew 5.45). And in so doing we will be like God. Yes, there are those whose hearts are turned toward Jesus, and there are those whose hearts are not. But we are called to love the latter just the same. No distinction. No scapegoating allowed. There is no us and them. The sunshine proves it. The falling rain testifies to the truth of it. We are all children of the same Divine Parents. And it’s time to learn the way of love once again. Defining others by “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” produces violence, bloodshed, death. It’s time to find our way back to the tree of life, which, remember, is for the healing of nations (Genesis 3.6 cf. Revelation 22.2).

2. Journal about what Jesus shows you as you sit with Him on these themes during your time in contemplation.

3. This upcoming week, share with your HeartGroup what you discover.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. I love you guys. See you next week.